As nice as a straightforward novel can be, it’s always exciting when a writer takes a real risk with their work. Sometimes authors take a risk in with style or with subject, but rarely do they tackle them together. In Autobiography of Red, that’s just what Anne Carson does.
The title alone is different, but when I opened the book and discovered that Carson had written a novel in verse, I think I gasped a little in excitement. There are a lot of ways to tell a story and sometimes we get lazy about it, falling back on comfortable themes and images. Carson does not do that.
Autobiography of Red tells the story of Geryon, who is at once a young man and a red-winged monster. In Stesichoros (the Greek poet who wrote The Song of Geryon quite a long time ago)’s account, Geryon is the grandson of Medusa. His form is debated, but historians seem to agree that he was a monstrous warrior; he lived on the Mediterranean island Erytheia (the red island of the sunset), where he kept a herd of red cattle. Herakles, for his tenth labour, was required to go to Erytheia and obtain all of Geryon’s cattle. In the process of doing so, Heracles kills Geryon.
In Carson’s telling, Geryon and Heracles are much more complicated and also much harder to place. She starts her story (after a couple of appendices laying out Stesichoros’ mythology in a lovely way) with Geryon’s childhood. That was when he started his autobiography. Geryon starts collecting things secretly, forming his autobiography out of objects he finds and patterns he makes—but it’s a secret (except from his mum), because for Geryon, an autobiography is an interior thing, just for him.
When Geryon grows up a bit, he meets Herakles and falls in love. Where this story takes place, in both time and space, is a great mystery, but nonetheless the two leave Geryon’s world for the world of Herakles’. It’s around this time that Geryon takes up photography, adding the images to the ongoing project of constructing his autobiography.
The scenes between Geryon and Herakles are so precise they are almost vague—it’s as if the more detail Carson gives the less real the scenes appear, which makes for a very beautiful and disturbing story. Carson, taking full advantage of the emotional power and potential for suspense offered by verse, slowly unfolds their relationship, just as Geryon slowly and uncomfortably unfolds his wings for Herakles.
Of course, Herakles cannot stay a good guy forever, and he crushes Geryon when he leaves. Geryon, who has only ever been vulnerable to abuse and neglect, sets off to travel the world and eventually runs into Herakles again. But Herakles has moved on, and his new lover Ancash becomes an awkward reality for Geryon as the three men travel on together, setting out to reach the top of a volcano. Geryon’s attraction to fire (and really, all things red) is pronounced in the latter part of the book. He becomes mesmerized by flames and describes them seductively, making them leap at you in a terrifying way. In another writer’s hands, Geryon’s attraction to fire could be an all-to-easy metaphor for his destructive lust for Herakles, but here, it is much more rich than that, and fire means many other things, including home.
Geryon’s journey, from abused child to lover to heartbroken youth to travelling artist, is the kind of story arc a writer can do a lot with. In Carson’s hands, Geryon’s autobiography become much more than a myth retold. By refusing to give her readers any sense of where the story unfolds (she mentions American money and countries in South America, but you just know that these are places you could never travel to), Carson manages to heighten the mysterious qualities of Geryon’s life while simultaneously grounding it in real, throbbing emotion and striking imagery. Geryon is, after all, a photographer.
More than anything, though, Autobiography of Red is a romance. Not between Geryon and Herakles, though, but between Geryon and life. And reading Carson’s story draws you into that life and makes you think about your own. For her, as for Stesichoros, Geryon is not just a side character in the story of Herakles’ triumph. Rather, he is the centre of the story, dominating Herakles because Herakles had to find him. And although he may be soft-spoken and gentle in his description, Geryon is someone who will draw you back to him again and again.
Autobiography of Red
by Anne Carson
First published in 1998 by Random House (cover image shown from Vintage Contemporaries edition)